Though young men's fancy may turn to thoughts of love in the springtime, if you're a film geek in Arkansas, chances are the green returning to the world gets you itching to have a film festival pass around your neck. We're blessed to have seen the rise of an honest-to-goodness film culture in Arkansas in the past decade, with most of it coalescing like a spring raindrop around several very good homegrown film festivals. The Ozark Foothills FilmFest, scheduled for April 3-7 in Batesville, and the Little Rock Film Festival, set for May 14-19, are the crown jewels of spring film in the state, and both have exciting offerings for 2013.
Craig Renaud, one of the founders and executive director of the Little Rock Film Festival, said that this will be a momentous year for the LRFF, with the opening of a new theater space in the River Market (though not in time for the festival) and the announcement of another large cash prize to help lure in excellent independent film.
The 325-seat Arcade Theater, which is scheduled to open in November at the corner of President Clinton and River Market Avenue, will be a permanent home for the festival, and will help the LRFF meet what Renaud called "our dream of being a fully-pedestrian festival." The LRFF plans to relocate its offices to the building as well.
"As soon as that happens," Renaud said, "it's really going to be a game-changer for us. All of a sudden, we're going to have year-round programming in a beautiful theater that we'll be able to call home. There's not many festivals nationwide that have their own designated theater downtown. That's really going to help us."
Renaud said that one of the things that has helped grow the festival in recent years — along with a dedication to flying in filmmakers to appear with their work and great local support — has been the $10,000 Oxford American Award for Best Southern Film. Renaud said the prize was instrumental in getting the eventual Oscar nominee "Beasts of the Southern Wild" to play at the LRFF last year. Renaud said another annual cash award equal to the OA prize is soon to be announced, but couldn't give more details than that at press time.
Renaud credits a programming team composed of filmmakers for picking excellent films before they garnered national and international buzz. "It's great for us to be able to say we saw those before they became big," he said. "That happened with 'Winter's Bone.' That happened with 'Restrepo,' before anybody ever really knew about that film. 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' already had a buzz, but we were able to bring it to the festival to show it. Our team of programmers are all filmmakers and film people. I think that helps."
"The Female Face of Indie Film" is the theme of the Ozark Foothills FilmFest, now in its 12th year. Several women filmmakers will be on hand to discuss their projects and 17 films by women will be on the schedule.
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 6, there will be a panel discussion at Lyon College featuring women filmmakers, including Kris Swanberg ("Empire Builder"), Sarah Ledbetter ("The Romance of Loneliness"), Kate Siegenthaler (whose documentary "No Trespassing" is about her career as a social worker serving troubled families in some of the same rural Missouri communities where "Winter's Bone" is set), Arkansas filmmaker Juli Jackson ("45RPM") and Martha Stephens, whose film "Pilgrim Song" won the $10,000 Oxford American Award at the 2012 Little Rock Film Festival.
The festival will officially open on Wednesday, April 3, with the highlight of the day being a 7 p.m. double bill of the 1937 romantic comedy "Topper" and the 1936 short "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad," the first color cartoon. The screening will serve as the centerpiece of a salute to the newly restored Landers Theater on Main Street in Batesville. Purchased and renovated by a local church, the theater's classic neon marquee is in the process of being restored now, and should be ready to shine again by opening night.
Another big get for the festival this year is the silent 1927 Josef von Sternberg film "Underworld." Considered the original gangster film by many film historians, "Underworld" won the Oscar for "Best Story" at the first Academy Awards. Joining the film live in the theater will be Alloy Orchestra, made up of three Boston musicians who tour the world with silent films performing original musical scores and providing sound effects using a variety of found objects. "Underworld" will mark the fourth time Alloy has performed with silent films at the OFFF, with its last appearance with "Metropolis" in 2011. Worth noting for indie music fans: Mission of Burma's Roger Miller is a co-founding member of Alloy Orchestra.
"They've been doing this for about 20 years," said Ozark Foothills director Bob Pest. "They've been called the best in the world at accompanying silent film."
"Underworld" screens at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 5, in Independence Hall on the UA Community College-Batesville campus. Admission is $12.